When Quilters hit the regional theatre circuit a decade ago, it sent Barbara Damashek on what she describes as a “creative roller-coaster ride.” “It was one of those life-changing moments when you take a major creative leap,” she says now, sitting in her small sunny cottage in the Berkeley hills, with a tomcat and a Siamese kitten acquired to add a sense of terra firma to her nomadic existence chasing each other across her lap.
The metaphor of quilt-making has turned out to be a theme that’s woven itself into the fabric of Damashek’s life. “As a freelancer, you’re always putting together a quilt somehow,” she notes wryly. “This gypsy life takes away anything central, any sense of roots, community, continuity. In life and art, you’re constantly looking for ways to pull things together, or you learn to allow them to coexist in their contradictory ways. I’m much more conscious now of experiencing life as a patchwork, fragmented thing, and that informs everything I do.”
Before Quilters, she’d led a relatively low-profile East Coast life teaching at conservatories and working as a composer/lyricist at Rhode Island’s Trinity Repertory Company and Connecticut’s Hartman Theatre. But when she was commissioned by Denver Center Theatre Company in the early ’80s to put together a piece based on a book of oral histories of frontier women who made quilts, her life was forever changed. The musical, which she co-wrote with Molly Newman and directed, marked Damashek’s first professional exposure as a director and became her main artistic focus for the following two years, as she toured with the show around the country, to Europe and finally to New York. It also established a unique creative niche for her in the national theatre scene as a director/composer/lyricist/writer of distinct sensibility and vision.
Having settled in the Bay Area after a brief stint in the mid-’80s as artistic director of the now-defunct Berkeley Jewish Theatre, Damashek maintains a loose artistic affiliation with San Francisco’s Magic Theatre. But on the whole, her itinerant career has kept her, she says jokingly, “a moving target.” In fact, until recently she hadn’t stayed in one place long enough to be registered to vote. In the first half of 1993 alone, she dashed from the Magic Theatre (where she directed the premiere of Steve Friedman’s Trouble) to other directing jobs at Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival (The Baltimore Waltz) and Shakespeare Santa Cruz (All’s Well that Ends Well).
Responding to the world
When Damashek first began creating theatre pieces, she applied her own particular musical vocabulary to mythology and fables, but now she’s more interested in applying it to oral histories and documentary material. “I’m more aware now of the political implications of my work,” she says thoughtfully. A favorite project was Whereabouts Unknown, a 1987 work commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville based on testimonies of the homeless.
Damashek’s close colleague Larry Eilenberg, former interim artistic director of the Magic Theatre, can clearly see the artistic changes that time and maturity have wrought. “Her work has responded to the world,” he says. “There’s a much franker sense of darkness to it. She’s much more accepting of tragedy, although her ultimate posture as an artist is affirmative.”
“I do not write the well-made play,” Damashek ventures. “The subject matter and the point of view define the world I create for a work. My directing sensibility informs what I do as a writer I write with a plastic sense about what form the play will take when it’s up on its feet. I look for a texture I don’t know when I start a piece whether to make it out of linen or stone, which are natural materials, or out of something contemporary, like celluloid. Quilters was made of cloth, Whereabouts Unknown was made out of steel. I let the subject tell me what it is.”
The name’s Diana
When Damashek directs a play, she almost always creates original music, because music is her personal path into understanding a theatrical piece. Her preparation for directing Max Frisch’s darkly comic The Firebugs for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival included creating musical and rhythmic settings for the play’s choral passages delivered by a cluster of firemen pounding out the rhythms of their text on steel gasoline drums.
In her recent All’s Well that Ends Well, Damashek’s music did double duty not only clarifying the play’s major themes, but providing a playful medium for its humor as well. The “Muscovite” regiment laying for Paroles was backed up by an “Internationale”-like marching song with Volga boatman overtones, and an elaborate four-part a capella doo-wop number called “Fontibel” was totally at the service of the two-line exchange between Bertram and Diana: “They told me your name was Fontibel,” he says proudly after dismissing his backup singers to begin his wooing in earnest. Her simple response, “No my good lord, Diana,” brought the house down every time.
A capacity for paradox
One of her regrets is that as a freelance director, she never has the opportunity for continuity with an artistic ensemble. To compensate, she creates an imaginary ensemble in her head when she writes, and during rehearsal she’s an involved, hands-on director, “notorious,” she claims, for writing the actors daily notes. “I expand rehearsal time in a sense by going home and writing notes there’s never enough time in the rehearsal process.”
The push and pull of being a gypsy director has made Damashek “keenly aware of paradoxes,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s art imitating life or life imitating art. I read a quote recently that said, ‘The capacity for paradox indicates a kind of spiritual maturity.'”
One of the paradoxes that has affected her work is the shifting balance between masculine and feminine sensibilities, polarities she explored in her recent production of Ali’s Well. “The play is full of riddles the writing is so dense, so feminine, every sentence turns around on itself, it has incredible depths of images. I did things that were Jungian, I dealt with images of healing, and I think there was a lot of the feminine in the way I did this play.”
She glances longingly at the musical keyboard and the tidy desk in her live-in studio. There hasn’t been much time lately for her to initiate her own creative projects, but she hopes that will soon change. She’s about to catch a plane for Ashland to discuss creating a piece for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s resident ensemble. And if all goes according to plan, she’ll also be creating new works with the Cleveland Play House, Milwaukee Repertory Theater and San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (in collaboration with the DeYoung Museum). Would she give it all up for the stress and responsibility of being an artistic director, for having an artistic home? “Absolutely.”